Monday, 22 September 2014

The Beatles "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" (1967)



"It was 20 years ago today that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play, they've been going in and out of style but they're guaranteed to raise a smile, so let me introduce to you - the act you've known for all these years!" "Do you need anybody? I just need somebody to love Could it be anybody? I just need someone to love" "Picture yourself on a train in a station, with plasticine porters with looking glass ties, suddenly someone is there at the turnstile, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes" "I used to get mad at my school, teachers who taught me weren't cool, you're holding me down, turning me round, filling me up with your rules" "I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wondering where it will go" "And it really doesn't matter if I'm wrong or right, where I belong I'm right where I belong" "She (what did we do that was wrong?) is having (we didn't know it was wrong) Fun (fun is the one thing that money can't buy) Something inside that was always denied for so many years (Bye bye)" "Having been some days in preparation a splendid time is guaranteed for all" "We were talking about the space between us all, and the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion, never glimpse the truth, till it's far too late, when they pass away" "Try to realise it's all within yourself, no one else can make you change, and to see you're really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you"  "Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely wasting away" "Lovely Rita meter maid, nothing can come between us, when it gets dark I tow your heart away" "Everybody knows there's nothing doing, the town is closed it's like a ruin, everyone you see is half asleep, you're on your own and in the street" "I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade, and though the news was rather sad I had to laugh, I saw the photograph" "He blew his mind out in a car, he didn't notice that the lights had changed, a crowd of people stood and stared, they'd seen his face before, no one was really sure if he was from the House of Lords" "I read the news today, oh boy, 4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire, and though the holes were rather small, they has to count them all, now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall, I'd love to turn you on...."

The Beatles "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967)
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds/Getting Better/Fixing A Hole/Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite//Within You Without You/When I'm 64/Lovely Rita/Good Morning/Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (Reprise)/A Day In The Life

It was 47 years ago a few months back, that everybody first heard the Sgt Pepper's tracks, it's been going in and out of style, but it's been a strong seller nearly all the while, so may I introduce to you the album full of smiles and tears, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band!"

I've got nothing to say, but it's OK.

Nahh, only kidding, I've got loads to say and no, no it's not OK: rarely as a reviewer have I ever felt more out of step with what most people seem to think about an album (though just wait until I get onto 'Pet Sounds'...) Reviewing this album used to be so simple. Back in 1967 everybody who loved music loved Sgt Pepper's - the fact that it was a cornerstone of popular music just wasn't questioned, with even the 'professional' newspapers falling over themselves to pledge their allegiance to music that immediately seemed 'deeper' and 'braver' than anything else that came before it. No one even thought to question the idea that 200 hours of studio time (a record back then, the norm these days) wasn't spent to the best use or that The Beatles had recorded anything less than a masterpiece. After all, 'Sgt Pepper's was everywhere even by fab four standards - on all radio stations (sometimes played end to end without a break), with that striking Peter Blake cover staring out from many a shop window and passed from fan to fan in a reverential way that hadn't been seen since 1964. It's often been said that one of the reasons the Beatles were so popular was that they acted like a mirror held up to their audience, reflecting all their hopes, dreams and realities about a month or so in advance of what was happening for real. I put it to you, dear reader, that this ability was never more finely attuned or receptive as in June 1967 when this album came out: that no other record captures the same spirit of tuning in, dropping out, getting your head together and most of all celebrating in life's limitless possibilities. Even the Victorian/Edwardian theme, chosen by the Beatles for their album sometime around Spring, spookily reflected that summer's trend of all things antique (when, in a particularly strange twist of fate, war planner Lord Kitchener found himself a hippie icon and boutiques of old clothes popped up as every second shop in some of Britain's hipper cities). Even more than as an album, 'Sgt Peppers' succeeds as a design package: a colourful invitation to a hippie circus that points both forward and back to which everyone (even those aged 64) can join in and which everything will be alright and happy and pretty and colourful, because The Beatles are never wrong. In short, I'm not at all surprised that David Crosby got hold of an advanced copy of this album and played it, full blast, from his apartment with nearly every Californian hippie gathering round his flat for a listen. And I'm not surprised that most of the adults didn't object - even The Times considered the Beatles to be all-grown up. And I'm certainly not surprised that so many millions at the time believed in this LP: it's made for hearing several times on several levels, with the cover alone open to studying for hours, a 'community' album that tries to gather together and 'include' the audience amongst the famous faces on the cover. Equally, though, I'm not surprised at 'Sgt Pepper's steady fall from grace across the generations, to the point where its lucky if it makes it into the 'top ten' of greatest LP polls nowadays.

The trouble is, 'Sgt Peppers' greatest strength - the thing that made it sell so many records on first release - is also a source of its biggest weakness. No other record - certainly on this site - is so tied up with a particular time period to the exclusion of all else. Compare it to other famous albums that seem to have lasted the difference (The Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers', Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and especially Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon') and the differences are palpable: all of these albums have lasted because each and every generation can identify with them, with topics, instrumentation and a kind of sonic gloss that could have been many year; by comparison 'Sgt Pepper's is so 1967 sometimes it hurts. I happen to be a fan who (retrospectively) adores 1967 (second only to 1966) - the year when everything changed and anything was possible, when music was just the right shade of 'progressive' and wasn't yet 'laughable' - and yet even I've always felt like 'Sgt Peppers' was the soundtrack to a party I never belonged to; that I could never belong to simply because I wasn't there. Now, apart from a few pangs when I see footage of Monterey Pop or Woodstock, not being there at the time doesn't really bother me: in many ways this is the greatest era to be a collector, when practically everything that could be is out on CD and there's sometimes 50 years of fantastic records to collect rather than just a few. But whenever I hear 'Sgt Peppers' I curse the generational mistake that saw me born 15 years too late to join in - because I can't wipe out the fact that just a year later Charles Manson will go on the rampage, that Vietnam will get tougher and Nixon pushier, that Altamont will silence the hippie generation at just the wrong point, spelling the death knell for the 1960s in their very last month, as if it was all meant to be that way. As a result, more than a few of us born after the fact, who come to this album after loving 'Rubber Soul' 'The White Album' and especially the comparatively austere brilliance of 'Revolver' and gone 'eh?!' It's not that 'Sgt Peppers' is a bad album - no record that contains 'A Day In The Life' could ever be and I would even add the point that 'Within You, Without You' and 'Good Morning, Good Morning' are candidates for the two greatest Beatles songs that nobody knows - but we can see flaws and cracks that weren't apparent at the time and as a result 'Sgt Peppers' has slowly slipped from its vantage point as the pinnacle of Western music to the point where it's now regularly ranked 5th or 6th amongst the best Beatles albums, never mind the best by anybody.

Whose right? Well, we both are - it doesn't matter when an album makes an impact as long as it does sometime in its existence (The Who's 'Quadrophenia' is a case in point - rated a 'failure' in 1972 it's often rated as their masterpiece over 'Tommy' and 'Who's Next' today). There's even a good case to make that this is Paul McCartney's finest hour because he's on terrific form across this album - writing the lion's share of the songs, singing a majority of the lead vocals, taking even more control of the arrangements, using the new time the Beatles now have in the studio wisely by recording jaw-dropping bass parts that simply ignore the 'obvious' notes most lesser players would play and - most controversially - playing the vast majority of this album's trademark stinging electric guitar. Paul, living at the heart of swinging London and finding somewhere new to go most nights and freed of his recent heartbreak over Jane Asher (with Linda Eastman one of many new girlfriends on tow), is loving life. Many of the album's greatest touches - the idea of an imaginary band from yesteryear, the classy lyrics to 'Getting Better' 'Fixing A Hole' and 'She's Leaving Home' plus the two very different arranging touches of paper-and-comb on 'Lovely Rita' and the famous orchestral 'swim' on 'A Day In The Life'  - are from McCartney's deft fingers and while a lot of his solo and Wings albums display this ability more, nowhere is Paul's mercurial Gemini nature to handle anything in any genre with equal aplomb heard more while he was still a Beatle.

The problem is, 'Sgt Peppers' still isn't a great 'Beatles' album because the Beatles as we've come to know them right through to 'Revolver' and even the 'Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever' single aren't here. My take on Paul's sudden decision to 'become' a new group with a new name - the title if you haven't worked that out yet - wasn't simply because the band wanted to be something else after touring ended in August 1966; it was because The Beatles were breaking up. Most books put this momentous date during the strained sessions for 'The White Album' or the filming of 'A Magical Mystery Tour' in September 1967, but the cracks are on show here: barely any track features full John-Paul-George harmonies, fewer still feature all three Beatles on the backing track (with Paul more often that not playing everything). Of the songs here only 'A Day In The Life' - the first recorded for the album - and the lyrical collaboration between John and Paul on 'Getting Better' features any real sense of collaboration or competition between the band and of the recordings only these two and the last-minute decision to record a 'reprise' of the title track feature The Beatles working together at the same time all the way through. After the highs of 'Revolver' - when John and Paul still bounced all their ideas off each other (Macca coming round to John's to write 'Here, There and Everywhere' only to find he was asleep, with Lennon coming straight back with 'I'm Only Sleeping' in response)  - this is a sad event indeed. (My guess is that Brian Epstein, more aware of people's feelings than people give him credit for, knew this too and while I don't for one minute think his death was a conscious suicide, the inevitable collapse of a group he cared so much for might be one reason he was more careless with his pill-taking, alongside a much discussed rumour that the Beatles wouldn't renew his contract later in the year; I doubt even The Beatles wouldn't have been head-strong enough to go forward without him by choice, though).

The trouble can be traced back to two events. Firstly, John and Paul discovered across the end of 1966 that they could work apart without each other for the first time since about 1958, with John working on the Dick Lester film 'How I Won The War' and Paul busy with George Martin scoring the soundtrack to the film 'The Family Way'. George Harrison, meanwhile, has discovered a whole new life outside The Beatles and his horizons have been widened by his trips to India and his meetings with Ravi Shankar. As a result, during a much-delayed, much-needed break from the intensity and stress of becoming a Beatle both John and George have grown bored of their role within the band. At the same time that Paul is re-discovering everything swinging in London, Lennon has found himself cut off from the world shooting a film and cut off from the world in his Surrey house, idling his time with a diet of television and LSD and unwilling to walk back into the Lion's den of Beatlemania and George has finally discovered what he's suspected for a while now: that being a Beatle isn't his purpose in life. As a consequence, the Beatles who walked back into Abbey Road Studios no 2 in late 1966 didn't just look differentto the ones who'd been there in June (Macca was the first to grow a moustache and 'break' the band image after a bad fall from a moped saw him get a nasty scratch above his upper lip; the others quickly followed suit but true to a band-that-wasn't-a-band grew distinctly different moustaches, from Lennon's Edwardian look to Harrison's mini-beard) - they felt different, aware for the first time that there was a life outside The Beatles. The problem was, the drugs and boredom had gnawed away at Lennon who is noticeably under-par on this album and looking for something that will only be found the following year in the shape of Yoko Ono (one of his few true assertions in his acerbic 'Rolling Stone' magazine interview of 1970 was that he never understood the fuss about this album and that his songs for 'The White Album' were better). And Harrison, now finally confident that he's found an important path the others didn't know about yet, was badly hurt when the others rejected him (he's barely on this album in fact apart from 'Within You, Without You', contibruing very little harmony and everything you think of as a 'great' George moment - the striking guitar solos on the title track and 'Good Morning, Good Morning' for instance - are all Paul's work). In fact, his first attempt at writing a song for the album - 'Only A Northern Song' (later revived for the 'Yellow Submarine' soundtrack) is the first song The Beatles openly rejected out of hand since 'How Do You Do It?' four years earlier, which must have stung (particularly seeing as I rather like it and rate it higher than a good half of this album). As for Ringo, he grew bored hanging around the studio for hours but his time wasn't completely wasted as Beatles roadie and faithful companion Mal Evans taught him to play chess. Had John, George and Ringo contributed (or been allowed to contribute) work half as good as Macca's then 'Sgt Peppers' would indeed have been a master-class of an LP, but after the one-two-three John-Paul-George punches of 'Revolver' this album doesn't stand a chance.

Another thing that's always slightly put me off this record compared to the many other greats in the Beatles canon is how unsettling parts of it is. Well, a lot of it actually. Many reviewers tend to think of this album as a colourful poster - bright, brash, exciting, not much going on below the surface or the sound effects - and in some cases that's true, especially on the surface (did Lennon ever write a song less inspired than 'Mr Kite', the brilliance of whose recording still can't quite make up for the fact that John really did crib these words straight from a circus poster?!) But the lyrics - written out on the album's back sleeve for the first time, in one of this album's real claims to originality - seem curiously tough when not surrounded by all that music (unlike 'Eleanor Rigby' 'She Said She Said' and 'For No One', all of whom sound as tough as old boots as well as reading like it). Only the chorus of 'With A Little Help From My Friends' celebrates unity - the rest of the lyrics deal with the fear of loneliness and rejection, a factor added to by giving it over to Ringo's doleful vocals ('Would you stand up and walk out on me?') 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' is one of several mid-1967 songs to crib from Lewis Carroll, notably the toughest writer for the nursery and while 'Lucy' is gentler than its 'sequel' ('I Am The Walrus') there's something vaguely threatening about this lurid dream, where 'newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take you away'. 'Getting Better' has a happy future but an awful, tortured past, with a narrator treated like a fool at school taking it out by beating up his women and, worse, 'keeping her apart from the things that she loves'. The gentle 'Fixing A Hole' has a sudden diatribe of a middle eight, dissing the people who 'disagree and never win and wonder why they don't get past my door!' 'She's Leaving Home' is a terribly sad song about a generation gap, that might have a happy ending for the daughter but none for the adults. 'Mr Kite' is scarier than any circus I've ever been to, with the closing run of notes sounding like the lions have been let loose on the poor unsuspecting audience.'Within You, Without You' is equal with 'Piggies' as George's harshest lyric while a Beatle, damning those who 'gain the world but lose their soul' (like 'Living In The Material World's title track, their names wouldn't be John and Paul by any chance?!) 'Lovely Rita' sounds like a happy song now but started off with Paul in a huff over a parking ticket trying to write a devastating song about a person who got off on making people miserable (before deciding 'in the spirit of the times it would be better to love her'). Even so, those last few gasps for breath and sound effects sound straight out of a hammer horror film. 'Good Morning' rants and rages against a 'straight' world like a practice-piece for 'Walrus', John and Paul's slashed guitars ending up in a string of sound effects where every animal sounds like its chasing (and eating) its predecessors: mankind simply the last of a run of programmed animals. And finally, 'A Day In The Life' is ominous indeed, taking in death, battle and in both Paul's middle eight and the third verse the banality of life against which all human beings come up short. Only the innocuous 'When I'm 64' (written when Paul was all of 16 some nine years before this album!) is truly straightforward and sweet from beginning to end. 'Sgt Peppers' pretends to be a stroll in the park (even the cover is a bandstand) but ends up a pretty frightening account of life in 1967 (as more than one fan has pointed out - and in an early example of the mystifying 'Paul is Dead' rumours started by garbled  newspaper reports over Paul's moped accident - the cover seems awfully like a graveyard, complete with flowers, as if the band are burying, not celebrating, something - not to mention the fact that most of the 'audience', made up of famous figures, are 'dead').

The obvious thing to talk about would be the setting: The Beatles as an 'imaginary band' . The band had talked about this a lot (they figured during their last tour in 1966 that the audiences never heard them and were too far away to see them so they may as well send a substitute band out and get on with writing; this may or may not have led to Pink Floyd nicking that very idea for their four 'Wall' concerts of 1979-80). But why that particular band? Well, anyone who has any collection of songs by bands who started up in the year 1967 will have noticed two things: most of the bands have cobbled together weird and wacky names of at least six syllables ('The Peanut Butter Conspiracy Band' 'The Chocolate Watch Band', 'The Quicksilver Messenger Service', the AAA's very won 'Big Brother and the Holding Company'). Most of them also have some link to the Edwardian/Victorian era, then back in fashion, with fans determined not to look like their parents and bored of current trends reaching back to what their grandparents wore (hence both boutique and band calling themselves 'Granny Takes A Trip!') By 1967 'The Beatles' was in danger of seeming old-fashioned and when Macca came up with the drug-friendly idea of 'turning' into somebody else, a band with a long Edwardian-sounding name seemed a good idea. That idea works well with the cover too: Pete Blake's amazing collaboration with McCartney to come up with  the cover concept is a good 50% of the record's success, I think, lookingly different to anything else around at the time but also - thanks to the colour and the idea of 'building' on the work of previous 'legends' - surprisingly right (although one wonders what people would have thought had Lennon's original choices of 'Hitler' and 'Jesus' been allowed through; other missing figures include Gandhi - airbrushed out at the request of EMI head Joe Lockwood back at a time when he was a 'controversial' figure overthrowing empire rather than a cuddly saint and actor Leo Gorcey, who sent a demand for $400 to EMI after the band approached him for permission; much fun can be had guessing which Beatle requested which figure - George clearly chose the Indian gurus, Paul the music-hall figures and John Lewis Carroll and James Joyce; but which Beatle asked for satanic figure Alastair Crowley, second-from-left, back-row? Or comedian Tommy Handley, approximately-middle-of-second-row? Or Bob Dylan, back-row-far-right? My personal favourite - and the figure I'm so pleased is there, looking on as if a Beatle once more - is Stuart Sutcliffe, third-row-far-left (Lennon's choice?) The idea to have 'The Beatles' actually in the audience - courtesy of their increasingly unrealistic looking waxwork dummies - is a masterstroke too, showing not only that this is a 'new' band, but one that has moved on so much in such a short space of time. If only, though, this theme had been carried through to the record properly: we start off well, with applause and a band introducing Ringo as 'Billy Shears', but then the concept isn't mentioned again until track 12 (the 'Reprise'); George Martin for one was very worried that the Beatles would get an awful lot of backlash for not linking the album together better (it's just as well he didn't know about the sprawling 'White Album' yet or he'd have been having kittens!)

The other key theme of this album - and one often missed - is 'childhood'. For a time there, in late 1966 (the exact same time Brian Wilson was beavering away on 'Smile' incidentally...) 'Sgt Peppers' was all set to be an album about childhood. Now, we don't know much about how far 'this' version of the album got before George Martin took the painful decision (which he's since said he regrets) to release 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields' as a single, which rather kyboshed the original idea. According to the details in Mark Lewisohn's wonderfully detailed sessionographys, not very far at all: only 'When I'm 64' and 'A Day In The Life' were recorded alongside those two songs and neither seem obvious 'childhood' songs. However, as we've seen '64' was a song McCartney first wrote when he was a child (near enough), played on the piano during Cavern shows to fill in time when all the sweat coming off the walls made the electrics go out. What's more both that song's 'old age' and 'A Day In The Life's 'death' motif sound very much like a loose concept about 'aging' to me; were The Beatles planning something like what Simon and Garfunkel did in 1968 on the first side of 'Bookends' (where man grows from a 'child' to being 'sat on a parkbench, like bookends', at 70). To add to this debate I give you evidence A (the references to school and teachers in 'Getting Better'), evidence B ('Lucy In the Sky, written - despite what you may have heard about the initials spelling LSD - after a drawing a five-year-old Julian Lennon made of his best friend at playgroup, which proudly sat on Lennon's fridge door throughout the year) and evidence C ('With A Little Help From My Friends' is exactly the sort of childhood expression/fond memory that two songwriters who'd just written about their Liverpool past would write together). Granted the rest of the album falls a bit short - but add 'Penny Lane' and 'Fields' into the list and the colourful, children-friendly sleeve (not unlike a modern 'Where's Wally?' picture book) and you actually have a stronger album 'motif' than the one about 'you're such a lovely audience, we'd love to take you home' (it makes for an interesting comparison with the comparatively middle-aged setting of 'Revolver' - all taxmen, divorce, lonely old people, sleeping, knowledge of death and awkward silences - too).

There's another key influence on this album, of course, and one which most reviewers would have mentioned long before now: drugs. While John and George had been taking LSD since 'Help!' times, with Ringo catching up for 'Rubber Soul' and Paul for 'Revolver', no other Beatles LP is quite so...open about the hallucinogenic experience. Lennon reportedly spent this album permanently tripping (in fact accidentally taking an overdose during the harmony vocals for 'Getting Better'; unknowingly, George Martin sent the high-as-a-kite singer onto the roof of Abbey Road to get some air; McCartney, uncharacteristically arriving slightly late, had to rush up the stairs to make sure he hadn't jumped off the roof - yet again, The Beatles story could have been very different but amazingly their luck holds right the way through to Epstein's death in September). While The Beatles were too clever to make it that obvious if  you didn't know (The BBC, hearing that this was a 'drugs' album, scoured the lyrics for clues but the best they come up with was 'four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire being the 'holes' in a drug's users arms, the real reason 'A Day In The Life' got banned - they completely missed the 'love to turn you on' line!), the references are certainly there. Both 'Lucy' and 'Mr Kite' could only have been written on 'acid' - colourful bursts of sound that leave you both exhilarated and restless for more; artificially created worlds that make our own one seem dull and drab. 'Good Morning' even more so - Lennon is literally unable to stop moving, walking past old haunts in the middle of the night, unable to get his brain to go to sleep (its 'Good Night!' this song's bouncy chorus should be singing to him, but he's far too awake!) 'Fixing A Hole' is pretty straightforward drug lingo for an ego trip, for improving the mind and the way it turns so suddenly from anger to blissfulness is a sure sign of an acid trip. 'Lovely Rita' starts off in the real world but, like 'Penny Lane', the surrealness imposes itself line by line until we're in a netherworld of ghostly spoken voices that make no sense. And 'A Day In The Life' tries to 'turn us on', with life somehow represented both starkly and colourfully (inspired partly by the death of band friend and Guinness heir Tara Browne in a drug-fuelled car crash, I've often wondered if it's more about Lennon crying out to be 'turned off' before something similar happened to him).

The whole of 'Sgt Peppers' seems to be viewing things 'differently' or on another 'level' - from the concept of The Beatles as 'another' band on down to the simple idea that parking attendants are only doing their job and are lovely really. You don't get those kinds of mind-changing experiences smoking tobacco or drinking pints, you know! Nowadays people are more likely to ask 'why?' and 'what were they on?' than 'were they on anything?' We sit here in the 21st century, with more bad drug stories than good, and ask ourselves how people as naturally talented as John, Paul, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, Keith Richards and David Crosby ever needed stimulants for their creativity. The sad answer is that in 1967 people didn't know any better: drugs were good, they increased your understanding of the world, sharpened its fuzziness, stimulated your creativity and softened your drive for competition and ego. For a time Drugs didn't just make you more creative - they made you friendlier (anyone who knew Lennon well in 1967 has remarked on how much nicer he seemed that year; the fact that it's this year he writes his first real song for son Julian speaks volumes). The only musicians who'd ever taken drugs were hardened bluesmen, still largely going and creating in their 60s and 70s: people simply didn't know of the dangers as no one had been taking them long enough to talk about long-term damage and over-doses were something that 'happened to other people' (and by the time it happened to Syd, the 60s generation's first real casualty in 1968, people were too hooked on them to get off them en masse, although interestingly Ringo appears to have cleaned up quicker and more thoroughly than most). As Crosby, one of the period's most legendary drug hooverers put it years later 'I think we in the 60s got everything right - the civil rights, the women's rights, anti-war, anti-nuke, but the drugs we got wrong'. Lennon, of course, will keep on going, taking harder and harder drugs and being arrested for possession in 1969 (illegally as it turns out) until finally quitting them all in 1970 as part of his and Yoko's 'primal therapy'. Macca, officially, cleans up after admitting to half the world's media that The Beatles have taken drugs (and, yes, the Pope is probably Catholic) but will be busted more times than Lennon after policemen finds cannabis plants in his greenhouse in 1972 ('We were sent them by a fan, planted them and two came up illegal!'), serves seven days in a Tokyo prison cell in 1980 and as late as 2006 his soft-drug abuse was being quoted by Heather Mills in her divorce settlement with him. George smoked on and off too - Patti Boyd's eye-opening autobiography hints that the 1970s George swung between the two extremes of hard drugs and heavy religion, suffering from its grasp even more than Lennon. Drugs will haunt all three from hereon-in (and even Ringo succumbs to alcohol abuse in the 1980s) and a few of their solo songs will be even clearer (Macca's 'Hi Hi Hi', Lennon's 'Cold Turkey'), but never are drugs such a 'normal' part and parcel of everyday life as on 'Sgt Peppers'. To re-paraphrase David Crosby, that's another reason 'Sgt peppers' doesn't sit as well in 2014 as it did in 1967; it gets the civil rights, women's rights, anti-nuke, anti-war feeling of the times spot-on - but unfortunately it also has the drugs.

So, whatever illegal substances fuel it, is 'Sgt Pepper' any good? Well, I don't buy the thought that it's the greatest thing the Beatles ever did for the reasons explored above. What's more, it's arguably the Beatles album that has dated most, with all that space-age production, sitars and sound effects placing this album firmly within one year either side of the summer of love. What's more, there's some terribly average songs here by high Beatles standards: the title track was never their greatest hour, however much fun they had dressing it up and while the Reprise has more life than the opening version 'Sgt Peppers' is at best a sketchy overture, not a song. 'With A Little Help' isn't the best song given to Ringo either: it lacks the fun of 'Yellow Submarine', the wonder of 'Good Night' or even the forlorn charm of 'What Goes On'. 'Lucy' isn't half as clever as it thinks it is and is one of the few tracks on this album to be done better in a similar manner by other psychedelic bands. 'Mr Kite' is a spectacular party piece, but as an actual composition is one of Lennon's weakest, too noticeably cobbled together at the last minute when Paul asked him if he was ready to head back into the studio. 'When I'm 64' is clever for a 16-year-old but rather clumsy for a 27-year-old with now so much experience. 'Lovely Rita' is lovable nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Compared to the consistent brilliance of 'revolver' any one of these tracks would be a slight come down, but this many seems like a travesty.

And yet...and yet there's so much packed into this album that this still leaves an awful lot to love. 'Getting Better' is the lost stepping stone between Merseybeat and psychedelia and has a better claim to the last 50:50 Lennon-McCartney song than either 'A Day In The Life' or 'I've Got A Feeling', containing broad strokes characteristic to both. 'Fixing A Hole' sounds odd but works on several layers, with McCartney's clever lyric about fixing up his Scottish farm-house (which will be key to his solo career) a brilliant metaphor for his own ego that just about gets past a dodgy lyric. For years I used to think 'She's Leaving Home' was too sickly sweet, but now I just admire it's amazing composition. 'Within You Without You' is one of George's career highlights, awkward and solemn and yet intelligent and hauntingly beautiful, the perfect re-action to both the put-down of 'Only A Northern Song' and his belief that Beatles songs should express more. 'Lovely Rita' might be nonsense, but it's quite loveable nonsense. 'Good Morning Good Morning' charges with an attack the rest of the LP could have done with, The Beatles baring their teeth to great effect (the rougher version from 'Anthology Two' being better still). And 'A Day In The Life' really is The Beatles' peak, an extraordinary combination of the familiar and scary, the futile and brilliant, all in one neat rule-breaking genre-defying package that's the closest yet anyone has got to putting down the whole of human existence into a single song.

Even the worst songs have something about them: George Martin is often applauded for this album and while the decision by so many of my fellow reviewers to call this album all his work and his greatest achievement is laughable (Lennon reckoned he did hardly anything on this album, but then Lennon thought Paul didn't do much for it either!), it is his greatest showpiece for the patience needed to translate Lennon's complicated and convoluted ideas into song (his typically helpful comment was that he wanted 'Mr Kite' to sound like 'an orange') and his deft touch in allowing McCartney to pour out a sea of ideas and sift through the ones that would work (even if any other band had had the brains to suggest it, there's no way any other 1960s producer would have agreed to hire an orchestra with nothing more than the instruction 'go from your highest note to your lowest and all end on bar 26'). Yes, Lennon spent his last set of interviews in 1980 moaning about wanting to re-record all his songs for this album (and 'Strawberry Fields', perhaps the one place Martin got things wrong) and to some extent he's right (the production, more than anything else, is what ties this album in to 1967 so tightly) - but the sheer 'sound' of 'Sgt Pepper' is one of the key reasons behind its success: nothing sounded like this before June 1967 (although a lot of later albums, 'Magical Mystery Tour' included, are pale comparisons at trying the same thing that don't quite get it right).

Overall, then, 'Sgt Peppers' is a really clever magic trick. You can sit in the audience and go 'ooh' and 'aah' and gasp at all the pretty colours and daring feats of observation till the cows come home. Only when you get back home and think about it properly do you realise how the magician got away with it - and your response to how you feel really depends on whether you can applaud four terrific showmen or whether you were so convinced by it all and so wrapped up in proceedings that, yes, gosh darn it, a little bit of you really had started believing in magic. And the magic trick is in painting a whole new world full of psychedelic colour that had never been glimpsed before, at least until the 'behind-the-curtain revelation in 'A Day In The Life' and the most quotable 'tah-dah!' chord in musical history. Of course, personally, I'd rather be watching the kitchen sink drama in black-and-white ('Revolver'), the sprawling modern life exhibit all in boxes of white perspex ('The White Album') or the colourful children's pantomime ('Magical Mystery Tour' - the walrus is behind you!' 'Hello children Goodbye!') than a magic trick anyway, but 'Sgt Pepper', whoever he may be (and yes, predictably, quite a few people came forward after this album to say their relatives really had been a 'Sgt Pepper' in the Boer War or something similar) is still a master of illusion. While his act is looking slightly faded and a few of his tricks have been revealed now, open to the public forevermore (curse you Anthology!) and while we spend quite a part of this review knocking him off his pedestal,  I can confidently predict that he'll still be seen as a master of magic for several generations to come - the children of the 1960s believed in him and the children who wanted to be part of the 1960s still want to believe in him.

'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band' is an interesting combination of two very separate elements - the bandstand orchestra seen on the front cover (expressed here through the brass rather than the woodwind) and what was then a very 'new' style of music: heavy metal. There's a terrific early take of the backing track doing the rounds on bootleg which really deserved a place on 'Anthology Two' - it's as raw and funky as The Beatles ever got in the years between 'I'm Down' and 'Helter Skelter' (note that all three are McCartney, not Lennon, songs), with a bit of busking where the horns should be and even more stripped-paint McCartney lead guitar. Sadly a lot of this effect is dampened by the rather trite strings (arranged by Martin from a McCartney idea) and the audience sound effects, which in themselves are good but belong to a quite different track; every time Macca (for this is very much his song) tries to join them up the effect rather jars. Lyrically this is one of Macca's lighter songs, similar to the title track of 'Magical Mystery Tour' in the way they try to set up a premise for an album that never quite arrives (and like 'MM Tour' it's interesting that McCartney 'casts' Lennon as the hustling barker, as if to hide his comparatively light presence on this album, and in this case John is the emcee telling the audience it's 'wonderful to be here' rather than simply 'roll up, roll up!', a 'fake' part that sounds slightly sarcastic and which Lennon - his temper now dampened by LSD - would normally have fought against). The result is a song that never quite works, although as an album 'Sgt Peppers' clearly needs a song like this and the album would have been the worse without it.

'With A Little Help From My Friends' was written mainly by Paul with a few bits by John (possibly the cryptic last verse, 'what do you see when you turn out the light?' 'I can't tell you, but I know it's mine'). The last 'full' song to be started for the album, it would be tempting to dismiss this lightweight song designed from the first for Ringo to sing as a last minute filler, but actually it always seems to have planned to segue from the title track (started a full month earlier). The song started life as 'Bad Finger Boogie' and contained the opening line 'What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?', a couplet sadly cut when Ringo objected that audiences might do just that if the band ever toured again). Like many of the pair's songs for Ringo, it somehow manages to straddle a gently upbeat lyric and a generally doleful, head-hanging melody that's emphasised by Ringo's country-rock little-boy-lost lilt. Bizarrely, we know more about the writing of this song than most Beatles tracks: Hunter Davies happened to pick the day the Beatles started work on this song as the day to 'pop in' while researching his biography simply titled 'The Beatles' and reports that John and Paul had virtually nothing written for this song, stumbling through it line after line with breaks to read magazines, natter, break off into other songs, etc. The Beatles Book monthly magazine were then invited into Abbey Road during a session a few days later (the only time they did this, in fear that they were losing fans after a whole five months between records!) and reveal a confident and snazzily dressed band busking good-naturedly behind a piano. Those there that day reveal that the song was 'virtually' complete (the only 'other' Beatles song you can see being recorded in front of your eyes is 'Hey Bulldog', the song the Beatles are actually recording in the promo for 'Lady Madonna'). Clearly something fairly major took place between the two days because 'With A Little Help' is a typically McCartney-esque rounded song with everything in its place, with the directness and occasional gibberish of Lennon's touch. Many people claim that The Beatles missed a trick and should have done the song the way Joe Cocker did a year or so later, but that would have made the song typically 1968; here the mood is typically 1967 - light camaraderie (this is one of the few tracks to feature John and Paul in harmony without any production trickery), hope for better things and a slight touch of sadness. While Lennon and McCartney wrote better songs, including a couple of others for Ringo, there's something about this song's placid and generally optimistic air that makes it popular even with people who don't usually like The Beatles' work (yes, sadly, there are some!)

Forget what you've read millions of times over: 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' is emphatically not about LSD: Lennon was genuinely shocked to learn what the initials (or some, at least) of his song read out when it was pointed out to him and Lennon, even in this period, would have been more direct about his drug-taking than that. Nope, 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' really is a surreal, childlike song based on a surreal drawing by his son Julian at primary school, a charming drawing of his friend Lucy O'Donnell flying alongside a 'diamond' (a nice distinctive shape drawn by many four-year-olds; Julian clearly had talent by the way - it's vastly superior to anything I can draw now never mind that age). Inspired by viewing the world through his son's eyes (and perhaps wanting to do for Julian what his mother Julia had done for him) Lennon tapped for the first time into his 'Lewis Carroll'/'In His Own Write' idea that 'life is strange enough for anything to happen, even nonsense' (an idea that will solidify further once John meets Yoko). This is Lennon letting his imagination take full rein and the descriptions are not unlike 'trippy' children's books (even more than Lewis Carroll this song recalls the 'topsy-turvy' worlds of Enid Blyton, especially the 'Wishing Chair' and 'Faraway Tree' stories out in the early 1950s when Lennon would have been the perfect age for them). Here everything is recognisably like our own world, but different: we almost have 'tangerine trees' here and occasionally 'marmalade skies', while the their verse is still rooted in reality, taking place in the very physical world of a 'train station', a place most children would be able to imagine and often a key setting in children's literature with all the noise and bustle and  hundreds of lives having their own adventures passing each other, the routes limited only to how many platforms and stops a train can have).Listen out too for Lennon's latest 'perfect muse', a 'girl with kaleidoscope eyes' who was then probably based on his late mother Julia (who did have very twinkly eyes looking at photographs) but was later taken by him to be an 'early' song about Yoko written before the pair had even met. The second verse, however, is horrendously OTT and unusually frothy for Lennon ('Rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies') - it's this verse that the children of those who were there in the 1960s tend to laugh at today. Lashings of artificial double tracking (the 'trick' that makes Lennon sound as if he's singing from a distance), a single note tambura drone (only the second and time George ever played an Indian instrument himself, once again on a Lennon song) and a McCartney moog part that drifts in and out of the mix gives a strong impression of an ever-changing world that's impatient for change (after the Beatles songs were remixed down into separate instruments for 'The Beatles Rock Band' game, several 'backing tracks' with vocals removed were leaked and this is one of my favourites, with an impossible-to-guess stuffed-to-the-brim mix full of little things that catch the ear, from Macca's sudden decision to double the keyboard part with the bass right near the end to the way the tambura accelerates and decelerates, like the acid-drenched car crash of 'A Day In The Life'). However the booming chorus sounds out of place, a hangover that's straight out of the band's look-at-me Merseybeat years and doesn't belong in this haunting cryptic world of hidden passages and secret gardens. Other bands have also, frankly, done a better job at this sort of thing (although once again The Beatles were 'first') - am I the only fan to think that the title track of The Hollies' 'Butterfly' is what The Beatles were aiming for with this song but didn't quite achieve? As a postscript, it somehow makes perfect sense that the oldest skeleton of a human being ever found back in Ethiopia in 1974 was christened 'Lucy' after this song happened to be playing on the radio. After her discovery many excited reporters tried to imagine what 'her' world must have been like (some historians now think 'Lucy' was a male), what adventures she might have had and whether her childlike brains experienced the world a different way. 'Lucy In The Sky' was the perfect soundtrack to such a discovery and you sense a mystical Lennon, tripping on LSD, would have been tickled by the fact mroe than anything else about this song.

'Getting Better' is one of the highlights of the album, a surprisingly gritty rocker that's another song best enjoyed as a surprisingly tight and taut backing track. The song was based on a band 'in-joke'; when Ringo was forced to take a month off from the band's 1964 tour after suffering from tonsillitis (at the incredibly late age of 24) he was replaced by Jimmy Nichol. The band, Brian Epstein and George Martin were all eager to see how quickly he could 'get' the 'Beatle' drum sound they needed in a hurry and every few minutes someone would ask him 'how's it going?' 'It's getting better' became his stock reply. Turned by McCartney into a song of hope and optimism that reflected his own personality during what might perhaps be considered his happiest year yet (swinging London! Linda Eastman! Songs bursting out of him!), Lennon added a few touches of his own: the 'couldn't get much worse' lines and the lines about rotten schooldays and beating up Cynthia (a side effect of LSD is thought to be that it makes a person deeply 'guilty' for their mistakes, especially a failure to control temper; Lennon will only shake this sense off later in the year when he discovers heroin and gets cocky again). One of the better combinations of John and Paul's personalities in the same song, 'Getting Better' balances an upbeat melody and a neat rock swagger with the feeling that this hope has only come after much pain and learning. The result is the most straight-forward sounding song on the album, which is interesting because it isn't really: the verses and choruses come in an irregular order, Macca's most eccentric bass part yet does the opposite of most bass parts (literally rooting the song to the ground) and letting the whole track fly off into the ether and even John and George's harmony vocals slide in and out of the song as if at random, following their own path through life. There's even another tambura part (again played by George), sizzling on one note like the sour, earth-bound shackled the narrator has just cast off, ending with a lovely guitar outburst and some double-time bass playing that's the single most exciting Beatles moment since 'Rain'. The overall effect is of a good song made great thanks to a fantastic production that makes what could have been 'just' a re-write of other happy dappy McCartney songs ('Good Day Sunshine' for one) into something deeper.

'Fixing A Hole' is by contrast a great song let down by a rather average production. On paper this should be one of the gems of the McCartney catalogue, combining its author's traditionally rounded and complete melody with a distinctly 'Lennon' way of looking at things (although the song is all Paul's this time). Rarely has he written a more enticing opening line than 'I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wondering where it will go' - in that one sentence physical reality and imagination have been invoked together, with a very real problem (rain leaking into Paul's newly bought Mull of Kintyre farm house) solved by thought as much as anything else. Just as affected by LSD as Lennon, this song also seems like Paul coming to terms with the effect drugs have had on him: of his new way of seeing things and coming to terms with his own character defects (mostly his ability to make friends too easily, hence his diatribe about hangers-on in an unexpectedly angry middle eight)and his desire to always be 'right' ('Because it really doesn't matter...') Unfortunately the song is let down by a frankly boring chug of a harpsichord part that fails to represent the magical world of possibilities opening up as part of Paul's 'fix' (as Ian McDonald points out in his superlative 'Revolution In The Head', he probably nicked it after hearing the similar part on The Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations', perhaps missing the point that this was the bit of the song that 'earthed' it, not the part(s) that let it fly into the ether) and a simple 'dit dit doo' part from John and Paul's backing vocals that makes them sound like an owl; musically the only exciting passage is another blistering guitar solo, from George for once. More than any other song on 'Sgt Peppers' 'Fixing A Hole' makes you think '200 hours and no one thought to fix 'Fixing A Hole'?!

'She's Leaving Home' is a fascinating song, a parable where a runaway from home acts as a metaphor for a whole generational divide. Typically McCartney, he (with Lennon's help) can empathise with both parts: with the teenager's need to escape a claustrophobic background and the parents' confusion, because they behaved the way their parents did with them and knew it was always done with love. Paul based the song on a sad piece he read in the papers, but in one of the most amazing of the many amazing co-incidences in The Beatles' story, we - and even he, had he remembered - knew what the girl, Melanie Coe, looked like. If you're lucky enough to own the Beatles 1964 appearance on 'Ready Steady Go' (all bought up by Dave Clark of the DC5' and not often let out to play, sadly) you can see her yourself: she's the dancer who wins the competition dancing to Brenda Lee's 'Brromstick' and gets a prize (and what's more, a kiss) from judge Paul McCartney! An unhappy teen rebelling against her upper-class parents even here at 14 (she went to the RSGo set without their permission and unchaperoned!), two years later she'd had enough and fled into the arms of an older man she's just met, who really was from the 'motor trade' (a fact that, spookily, Macca only guessed - it wasn't in the newspaper reports). All this spookyness fits a song that finds Paul at his most empathetic, his vocal crackling with worry, strain and pressure throughout (while John's counter-melody as the parents - again, how compliant was he in this era as it's not a natural 'fit'; for him at all - is equally delicious). Lesser writers would have had the teenage runaway condemned to a life of misery or having the time of her life while her parents worry; in this song neither side truly wins - it's just a sad tale that was inevitable and leaves pain and hardship on both sides. Macca's knack for writing details is rarely better: the speech is exactly what a heart-broken parent would cry, with the shared family trait of comfort blankets between mother and daughter ('Clutching her handkerchief' 'Gets into her dressing gown') hinting that the pair of characters are actually closer to each other than they perhaps realise. What's more, their 'parts' (narrated by John and Paul) aren't in competition; their wo4rlds cross over - literally at the point where Paul sings the word 'buy' and John adds 'bye-bye'), their worlds connected even at a distance, actions causing ripples for others. The music, too, is haunting but not condemning, telling a sad tale because it's there rather than 'commenting' on the scene. Interestingly bootlegs reveal a cut three-note cello phrase removed after every verse (and three very obvious edits if you know where to look for them) - it's a shame this was cut as it really adds to the mood, adding a final 'full stop' after every event, as if to say 'there's no going back'. The tune that is here is lovely, one of Paul's best, and while I'm often critical of rock bands who sing solely to an orchestral backing, this update of the mood of futility and hopelessness heard on 'Eleanor Rigby' is ever so nearly as good. Most critics say its 'Within You, Without You' but actually it's 'She's Leaving Home' that's the emotional conscience behind the record, reminding fans that the hippie dream will come at a cost and that your parents aren't that bad, really. One of the album's more carefully thought out songs.

Alas 'Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite' sounds like exactly what it is: filler nicked wholesale from a circus poster. The poster for a circus show taking place in Rochdale in 1843 had been sitting in Lennon's 'writing room' ever since he bought it in a Kent junk shop (during down-time from shooting the 'Strawberry Fields' and 'Penny Lane' videos) and was inevitably going to appear in a song somewhere when Lennon learnt the Beatles were going back into the studio and inspiration needed to strike fast. Virtually all the lines of the song are in there somewhere (sample line: 'Being for the benefit of Mr Kite, late of Well's Circus, and Mr J Hendersen, the celebrated somersault thrower!'; Lennon was particularly pleased with the phrase, actually stopping a take to argue with the tape engineer what the full title is during the early take heard on 'Anthology Two'); all Lennon did was shuffle them around for a bit and make them rhyme. Fan rumour that Lennon was talking about heroin 'Henry the Horse', with both 'H' and 'pony' being slang terms - as in John's own later song 'Dig A Pony', is probably wishful thinking as it's a bit early yet for Lennon to be on the drug or mixing with people who used it (although interestingly this is the one change Lennon made to the wording of the poster, where the original horse is called the even more psychedelic 'Zanthus'). orseHorseThe song clearly 'belongs' on 'Sgt Peppers' in a way that it wouldn't fit on any other Beatles album (John would have been laughed out of the studio if he'd come up with this for 'A Hard Day's Night') and offers plenty of opportunity for psychedelic sounds (what could be more colourful than a circus?) The end result - a mixture of cut up tapes featuring harmonium parts, harmonicas and a Victorian steam organ - really does sound like the spit and sawdust of a real life circus and is one of the more impressive production numbers on a Beatles recording. However, even with a glittering production number this good, 'Mr Kite' never quite throws off the feeling that, like most circuses, it's all a bit of a let-down, deeply artificial and not half as funny or as clever as it thinks it is.

Onto side two and curiously George's 'Within You, Without You' is the one song on the album whose reputation has gone up not down over the years - and that despite having the most overtly 'of its time' feel of perhaps any of the album tracks. George Martin, fed up with having to organise yet another vaguely Indian tune at short notice, has admitted that he got the song finished with as quickly as possible so he could get on with John and Paul's (also adding the painfully arch 'laughter' at the end - an unforgivable slight for what's one of Sgt Pepper's deepest, most thought out song); he's since come round to thinking this the best track on the album, a 'very good song' (and it was the two Georges together who pushed to have the lovely backing track of this song included on 'Anthology Two' when Paul's collage 'Carnival Of Light' got the boot at the last minute). Personally, I agree: while moody and grumpy even by George Harrison's standards, there's a deftness of touch and intelligence in the lyric that makes this George's best song for the band behind 'Long Long Long' and 'The Inner Light'. As if picking up from the sad generational tale of 'She's Leaving Home', George speaks about the 'spaces' between people, the 'wall of illusion' that is modern-day life and how different it could be if everybody approached each other with love, not hate or prejudice. The lines about people 'who gain the world but lose their soul' is the best realisation yet of a thought that worries him for most of his writing career: that to be rich and famous in a material sense is futile when his interest in the religions of the world proves to him that there are so many more worlds than this one (the 'Living In The Material World' album almost all sounds like this track). The answer is given to us in the chorus: that we're too small to matter in the grand scheme of things but each of us has the power to 'change' something and connect with the universe's plan. The music George writes for his caustic lyrics is highly fitting and shows how much he's been learning as a songwriter: he's picked up the sour dissonance of notes when things are wrong from Lennon and a powerful 'breakaway' part that suddenly soars up to the stars straight from McCartney. The cast of Indian guest musicians on this song, meanwhile, are superb: picking up on this song's complex brief of combining the 'structure' of Western music with the 'flow' or Eastern music whole and turning in one of the greatest ensemble parts on any Beatles LP. For all George Martin's dismissal, his orchestrated string part is also right on-the-money and one of his best enhancements of something The Beatles brought to him (traditionally, George rarely asked him for help the same way that John and Paul did and that's a shame given how spiritually close the pair sound here). The result is one of the most beautiful and haunting lectures ever delivered by anyone anywhere and a track that just keeps on giving, the basic 'truth' of our smallness in the lyrics chiming more now than it ever did in the 'swinging sixties'. 'Within You Without You' is destined to flow more with each new generation long after the tales of circuses, meter maids and lonely hearts club bands have grown stale and it's curious lack of harmonics and droning sound actually makes more sense in the decades after rap, sampling and hip hop than it would have done right in the middle of the rich seam of melody that was psychedelia. Not for the first or last time on this site, proof that George really was ahead of his time.

'When I'm 64' by contrast just sounds silly, although along with 'She's Leaving Home' (and unlike the Wings track 'Lonely Old People') Paul shows an empathy with the elder generation that is both rare and touching. Paul really did turn 64 in 2006 and sadly his life at the time wasn't quite the way he planned it here, with a cosy couple living simply, with a holiday once a year to the Isle of Wight and lots of grandchildren (memorably named 'Vera, Chuck and Dave', at least two of which are named no infant has ever been called in Britain since the Edwardian era and again tying in with the album cover!) Legend has it that Paul wrote this for his dad, as a tribute to the sort of songs once played by 'Jim Mac's Band' (as they were known). However, I think that's too simple: this track sounds nothing like the 'Country Hams' pieces that Jim McCartney Senior actually wrote  and Wings re-arranged for his birthday in 1974 and the lyrics match up even less with Jim McCartney's life at 64 (in 1966) than his own at that age: by then Jim was living with much younger second wife Angie and having a ball with what his sons had provided for them (One of Paul's first gifts was a race horse, Drake's Drum', which kept his dad in steady income even without Beatle money). Then again, Paul first wrote this song not when his dad was 64 but eight years earlier when he was 56 (when it was often a filler in early Beatles sets at the Cavern, busked by Paul solo if a piano was present and the others needed a 'rest'). Why did he choose this age (apparently there from the first draft?) Was he imagining a happier future for his dad (the pair were very close), perhaps at age when he was ready to retire? Or imagining a time when his mother Mary was still alive? I sense there's a deeper story going on in 'When I'm 64' than the 'music hall novelty act' backing or the slightly goofy lyrics suggests, with the pained chorus 'will you still need me? Will you still feed me?' suggesting that, in the immediate post-Jane Asher years of 1967, Paul was deliberately casting round for a 'life partner' rather than a fling. If so, then he's in luck: seeing as this track was recorded alongside 'Strawberry Fields' and 'Penny Lane' in December 1966, he probably hadn't met Linda yet (most commentators have the pair first meeting in May 1967) but she's coming into this story soon, very soon.

'Lovely Rita' is the joker in the pack, a track that started off as a spiteful song after McCartney got a parking ticket (and after the parking attendant, who really was called Rita, spurned his invitation for dinner instead of paying a fine!) but got turned into a funny love story that never quite happens. For such an ethereal sounding song (treated with more waspish ADT, phantom voices, comb-and-paper and a fade-out more like something from the first Pink Floyd album, all scary voices and chattering echoed sound effects), the lyrics and sound aren't half 'earthy', full of Liverpudlian humour and a noticeably bass-heavy production (with Paul's bass at its loudest in three years, since 'What You're Doing'). Unused to being told 'no', it almost sounds as if McCartney is chuckling at himself for 'failing' to get the girl: 'I took her home and nearly made it', a line picked up on by many as a clue that the 'real' Paul died but actually a joke about how close the pair came to having sex on a first date. Lots of quick-stepping lyrics and alliteration ('In a cab she looked much older, and the bag across her shoulder make her look a little like a military man') suggest this song was written for Ringo (and fits with his 'unlucky' public persona), but Paul turns in another fabulous vocal, all winks and music hall humour. Again, though, while a whole lot of fun (and another of my favourites on the album) 'Lovely Rita' is a pretty insubstantial song by Beatle standards.

'Good Morning, Good Morning' is often seen as an unsubstantial song too by most people, but for my money its Lennon's greatest moment on the album behind 'A Day In The Life' (which is only partly his anyway). Inspired  by the annoyingly trite riff from a Kellogg's Cornflakes commercial (sung here by a rooster; Lennon often wrote with the television on in the background - 'Meet The Wife' is probably a reference to the TV programme that came on next, a tired BBC comedy not unlike 'Life With The Lyons' the title of a John-and-Yoko LP from 1969), Lennon both spoofs and celebrates the ongoing world around him while he sleepwalks through it on LSD, literally if the lyrics are to be believed (taking a walk 'by the old school', an interesting setting given that he hadn't been back to Liverpool in some time - is this a memory of his own school based on taking Julian there for the first time - he'd have been the right age to start 'half-days' there about now. Or simply a trip through his own mind as per his revisiting of 'Strawberry Fields' Salvation Army children's home?) Like 'She Said She Said' this is Lennon at his most spontaneous, the melody following no structure and getting through simply by 'mood' (and yet again Ringo excels on a convoluted Lennon track best described as 'mischievous') and - much like Lennon himself in this period - is generally relaxed and content with sudden energetic mood swings of violence. The result is impossible to follow but exhilaratingly exciting, as if the surreal-ness of 'Lucy' has now fully bled into the real world, one where a rush of psychedelic imagination has come up short against the very mundanity of life: after a restless night tripping the shops still aren't open yet and no one is around (unlike later, when the town is too full to move, with people fitting their lives round the 9-5 job Lennon has just 'given up' now the Beatles don't tour anymore). Lennon may have dismissed this song, both in interviews during his solo years and in this song's own loine 'I've got nothing to say but its OK' but that's not actually true; this whole song feels as if its his sub-conscious trying to tell him something again (as per 'Nowhere Man', created in similarly confused and sleepy circumstances) but Lennon isn't entire sure what. My guess is he's feeling hemmed in, back at home with a wife who didn't approve of his drug-taking and a son who needed proper looking after, after years of seeing the world. There's a sense in this song of 'is this it?' matched only by the lyrics in 'A Day In The Life'; while McCartney never felt more a part of the world scene Lennon has never felt more out of it and it scares him. The Beatles help that feeling of confusion by turning in their single best backing track of the album, with not just Ringo but Paul's 'frightened' bass riff trying to take cover that never comes, a blistering McCartney guitar solo that cuts through the indecision like a knife through better and a clever saxophone-and-trombone part that adds brittleness and harshness. The segue of animal sound effects (in order, a rooster, birds - taken from the same tape as the WWF mix of 'Across The Universe' which was used by everybody in the 60s and to which we dedicated a whole 'top five', a cat, a dog, a horse, sheep, an elephant, hunting dogs and humans; deliberately programmed by Lennon and Martin to sound like they're 'devouring' each other; an alternate interpretation has them segueing into each other so well its as if mankind is only a programmed part of nature alongside the others, with man-made rules and jobs to follow just as a cat 'knows' to hunt mice etc, which might help Lennon's narrator feel less 'lost'). The result isn't the greatest thing The Beatles or Lennon ever did by any means, but far from being a lightweight slab of gibberish as so many assume this turbulent mood-piece is deeply under-rated and a better hint at Lennon's complex psyche than anything else he ever wrote except perhaps 'Jealous Guy' 'Cry Baby Cry' and 'Revolution #9'.

The reprise of 'Sgt Pepper's' comes charging in like a tonne of bricks with the reminder that 'we're getting very near the end' (of life and civilisation as much as the record, given what happens in 'A Day In The Life'). The suggestion to reprise the song came from roadie/future Apple manager Neil Aspinall (the one major impact he had on The Beatles' music) and was rushed through very much at the last minute as late as April and in the middle of the Beatles' busiest patch for a while (Macca left the morning of the first session early to catch a plane to go to Monterey, where he was helping to organise the music festival). Perhaps that's why this Reprise has such a fragmented and rushed air, in stark contrast to the rather laboured opening version recorded two months earlier, wonderfully energetic and a big improvement being both tougher and less facile (there's no horns on this version). Lennon slips in a sly and sarcastic  'bye-ee' alongside McCartney's pompous '1-2-3-4' (remarkably like his similar count in to 'I saw Her Standing There') before the song proper that's delightful and worth the price of the album alone! Still, though, this track isn't much of a 'song', just an 'underture' as The Who would put it, here to give the album a kind of false unity it doesn't actually possess.

That leaves us with 'A Day In The Life'. That's a day in the life of all of us, a mixture of the brave, the futile and the facile, with Lennon's slow and weary verses never sadder or more full of pain and notably in contrast to most songs from 1967, a bright and happy musical time (the use of the phrase 'Oh, Boy!' for instance couldn't be less like Buddy Holly's upbeat riff, hinting at how dark music has become in a decade). The first verse is about what for The Beatles at least is the real 'danger warning' and 'death' of the 'hippie dream': an imaginative take on band friend Tara Browne's needless death in a car crash ('He blew his mind out in a car'), and - so it was hinted - might have become the youngest member of the House of Lords sometime before the end of the decade. His death robs the Beatles not only of a friend and their carefree lifestyle but of having a 'representative' in a major English institution where actual physical change might have been done (goodness knows that Lennon would have made of 'rock star politician' Tony Blair). The second about a pointless war (inspired by Lennon re-creating playing soldiers on the set of 'How I own The War'). Lennon thinks it's pointless because we know the ending - it will end like every other war in human history, with both sides the losers and no change that matters (Lennon has 'read the book'). A stunning sequence of orchestrated noise comes next, a wonderful improvisation of noise from an orchestra only used to playing by the rulebook that sounds like the weight of the world collapsing in on itself (the bootlegs and Anthology Two reveal Lennon had no clue what to do here; we know the idea came from McCartney and was eagerly seized by his partner). It's surely no coincidence either that this song sounds like a 'drugs rush', a sudden re-interpretation of looking at life that makes the whole drabness of the real world sound colourful once more.

A middle eight from an entirely separate song by Paul returns us to both his childhood and focus: unlike the drifting Lennon Paul's character is going to school and has to be on time. His life couldn't be more different to the narrators of both the first half of the song and 'Good Morning'...and yet even here, with a simple tobacco 'smoke' and a period of dreaming he's back in this peculiar under-world again, where the world has changed irrevocably. Suddenly we're back with Lennon again for a third verse that reveals after reaching such highs that the narrator is back down to Earth with a bump again. The world has so much to learn and it hasn't learnt it because here we are with a nonsense story picked out of the papers again and introduced as if it's of the same importance: a report on how many holes there are in Blackburn, confusingly related in terms of 1/26th of a hole per person' (not that far from where I live - let me tell you the roads haven't changed much!) Lennon cackles, the world's clearly mad but he has an escape route: cue a second adrenalin rush but now with the 'fear' that what happened to Tara Browne might happen to him. And down comes the klaxon, with the most 'final' final note in musical history, played by John Paul Ringo and George Martin simultaneously on four pianos and left to run for so long (53 seconds) that this one note lasts longer than some Beatle songs ('Maggie Mae' and 'Why Don't We Do It In The World'), running for so long that if you have a really clear stereo and a CD copy you can hear the Abbey Road air conditioners whir. The last striking note that ends the hopeful riff first heard three years ago at the start of 'A Hard Day's Night' (a G Eleven Suspended 4th' so I'm told) with a resounding crash this is The Beatles knowing that while they've put together a clever dream here, it's one that is already showing cracks and will never last. Few other songs have ever resonated with such pathos or struggle (making it remarkable to me that it should be recorded so early in the album, with all the 'silly songs' added later when they must have seemed even more banal by comparison), expertly executed by a band who know exactly what they're doing, with Lennon's scared vocal especially strong. 'A Day In The Life' was rightly heralded as a masterpiece and is still a candidate for the fab's greatest moment. If you've ever wondered what the song might sound like without orchestra, by the way, Neil Young did a great version in concert a few years back with feedback doubling for the orchestra. McCartney even guested during a 'Bridge School Benefit' gig where both were performing, making it sadly the only time any of The Beatles have ever attempted one of their greatest songs in concert.

And that's that, bar a dog whistle (which, curiously, I never used to be able to hear until the 2009 stereo version - did they reduce the sound a pitch or has my hearing got better?) and a cut piece of  nonsense ad libbed on the spot and added to the 'run-out-groove of side two, making sure that no space would be wasted or left empty (heard backwards the song quite convincingly has McCartney saying 'We'll fuck you like supermen', but I'm willing to believe his explanation that this was a 'co-incidence'; random collages are exactly the sort of things the Beatles would do after all).

So ends an album that, whatever you think, is clearly a key part of musical culture and a record that will always be associated with the times when it was made: when everything seemed just around the corner but when the real world might tip over into chaos at any minute. Frustratingly, and for The Beatles more than anyone, its' the latter mood that will take hold as the year grows older and the casualties mount up (Brian Epstein among them). Never again will records be quite this carefree ('A Day In The Life' apart) or try to chime in with a public mood - which is society's loss quite frankly when its' depicted as well as here. All that said, though, 'Sgt Pepper's is clearly not the masterpiece everyone once thought it would and clearly pails against 'Revolver', maybe even 'Rubber Soul' and as such is the first Beatles record not to improve on its predecessor. Sgt Pepper is showing his age nowadays, with the 'Edwardian heritage' reflected in this album as long ago at the time it was put together as the 1960s are from us now. However, like all generations that came before us, its only the clothes, the 'feel' and some of the instruments that have changed: this record is still recognisably 'us' and still has lessons within for us to learn.

"That was Alan Album Archives' 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band', we hope you have enjoyed the show, Sgt Pepper's one and only Lonely Heart's Club Band, you all love it really we know, after all what other album summed up a period's hopes and fears? So may we introduce to you - Max The Singing Dog as Billy Shears! ('Woof!) Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band!


"Never goose me alley up the wall"...

Other Beatles reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Rubber Soul' (1965) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/the-beatles-rubber-soul-1965-album.html

'Revolver' (1966) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-6-beatles-revolver-1966.html

'Magical Mystery Tour' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/news-views-and-music-issue-45-beatles.html

'The Beatles' aka 'The White Album' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-25-beatles-beatles-aka-white.html

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